Dylan Gives the People What He Wants

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Dylan Gives the People What He Wants


Published: June 12, 2005
The New York TImes

THE theater, 70 miles north of Lansing, Mich., was big and boomy and boxy, and a third empty. The fans sat, six to a side, at long tables perpendicular to the stage. A few dozen yards away, slot machines jangled, lights flashed, cards snapped. Onstage, the frail-looking singer hunched over the keyboard and bleated out a tune that the patient audience strained to recognize. The singer, dressed as he always is in courtly dark garb, said little to the audience, though once or twice he emerged from behind the keyboard to play a harmonica solo from center stage.

The place was the Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort, and it was an odd rock 'n' roll show. But it was the kind of show and the kind of site that Bob Dylan has increasingly made his own.

Mr. Dylan, 64, plays big cities, of course. (In April he played five nights in Manhattan.) But more and more, he is choosing stranger settings: state fairs, corporate events, urban street fairs and casinos (from Indian casinos like the Turning Stone in Verona, N.Y., and the Soaring Eagle to more traditional ones in Las Vegas and Reno). He is now in the middle of his second summer barnstorming tour of minor-league baseball fields, like the Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee, Fla., with Willie Nelson in tow.

Mr. Dylan may be in the final phase of his long and iconoclastic life as a star, and for it he has chosen a very long and very iconoclastic tour: 1,700 shows and counting, beginning in 1988. Caught in an artistic crisis then, he decided to defibrillate his career and go back on the road. Accompanied by a small combo, he reintroduced himself to fans, sporting a lean energy and a commitment to exploring his nonpareil song catalog. He shows no signs of slowing down, though he has lately replaced the guitar he has played for more than 45 years with a keyboard, causing speculation that back problems might be responsible for the switch. (Through Mr. Dylan's publicist at Columbia Records, his management said playing keyboards was "just his musical preference" and declined to comment otherwise for this article.) Mr. Dylan has turned his act into one of the weirdest road shows in rock. He rarely speaks to the crowd, and when he does, his remarks are often gnomic throwaways. ("I had a big brass bed, but I sold it!") He plays some of his best-known songs, but often in contrarian, almost unrecognizable versions, as if to dampen their anthemic qualities. He highlights recent compositions more than most of his 60's coevals, but these, too, are delivered as highly stylized, singsongy chants. He strives to play as many kinds of places as possible, even playing successive nights in different theaters and clubs in large cities.

In other words, Mr. Dylan seems to have developed an unparalleled commitment to sharing his art, but only on his own very specific terms.

Of course, a hundred shows a year is not unheard of in the rock world; some well-known figures, Mr. Nelson and B. B. King among them, play even more shows than Mr. Dylan. But no performer of similar stature has exhibited his decades-spanning commitment to the stage. Acts like Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones and U2 tend to tour every two or three years as part of a grandly themed marketing package, complete with a new album, an intricate publicity strategy, tractor trailers to carry their massive stage sets; later there is souvenir bric-a-brac like a live album or an HBO special for later DVD release.

Mr. Dylan does none of that. There are no themes, little publicity and no tractor trailers; he just plays shows. The writer Paul Williams, who founded Crawdaddy, arguably the first rock magazine, in 1966, said Mr. Dylan's focus had moved away from recording in the last few decades. "This is his art form," he said, "the performing."

These shows have none of the strict choreography of the modern rock concert. Major touring acts will charge hundreds of dollars for a tightly scripted performance, with one or two opportunities for spontaneity. By contrast, Mr. Dylan's small ensemble plays confidently during each set's few anchors, but watches somewhat warily during the rest of the show, as Mr. Dylan decides which part of his huge repertory to sample next.

"He would do anything from old folk songs, Civil War-era songs, up to standards," said the guitarist G. E. Smith, who played with Mr. Dylan at the start of what has become known as the Never-Ending Tour. "I remember once, we were playing in Hollywood, and he played 'Moon River.' "

UNLIKE some of his peers, Mr. Dylan doesn't seem to be motivated primarily by money. His ticket prices average a bit over $40, according to Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert industry magazine Pollstar; that's significantly below the industry average. "Bob is one guy who's realized it's not all about the money," said Jerry Mickleson, of Jam Productions in Chicago. "It's about making music and making people happy. It's not about charging $100 a ticket."

For the Bob and Willie tour, in 2004, he added, tickets were $45. This year, they were $49.50.

Still, finances may play a part in Mr. Dylan's touring strategy. Casino shows are highly remunerative; the Soaring Eagle had an uncharacteristically high $150 top ticket price, reflecting a high upfront fee for the artist. He will never starve, but Mr. Dylan did not come out of the 1960's and 70's with what could be called McCartney money. Howard Sounes, in his Dylan biography, "Down the Highway," writes that Mr. Dylan has had four generations of Zimmermans and Dylans to house at various times, besides two wives and, it seems, the odd mistress. If Mr. Dylan plays 100 shows a year before 4,000 fans at an average price of $40 a ticket, he may walk away with more than $5 million profit. And of course, that's on top of the million or so albums he sells a year.

Yet money doesn't fully explain the restless nature of the touring, and it certainly doesn't explain Mr. Dylan's refusal to give the audience what it wants to hear, his casual approach to publicity, the small clubs or the costs involved in playing at different sites in the same city. For some of his 1960's peers, whose tours can gross in the nine figures, it's hardly worth leaving the Hamptons for $5 million.

One clue to what Mr. Dylan is doing may be found in the liner notes to "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," one of his early albums: "I don't carry myself yet the way that Big Joe Williams, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Lightnin' Hopkins have carried themselves," he said. "I hope to be able to someday, but they're older people. I sometimes am able to do it, but it happens, when it happens, unconsciously." These figures aren't merely musical heroes; they're also counterpoints to Mr. Dylan's casually decadent rock star peers, who happily cater to their fans' demands. Unlike them, Mr. Dylan offers the audience only what he thinks they should want: an opportunity to see an artist work.

He has even become something of a proselytizer for the road's healing powers. A call from Mr. Dylan encouraged the singer Patti Smith to go back on the road after a 16-year hiatus. "He told me I should share what I do with the people," she said. "I think that resonates with his philosophy."

The journey Mr. Dylan is on has eerie premonitions in his songs, nowhere more so than in "Like a Rolling Stone," whose refrain of "no direction home" can sound both ominous and triumphant. "I think when he sang 'no direction home,' he's talking about being lost, kind of a stranger in a strange land," Mr. Williams said. "And then ironically, it's how he chooses to live his life."

Jonathan Cott, the author of "Dylan," said: "I've thought about it, and I know it's a cliché, but I think he finds himself on the road - 'finds' in both senses of the word. I think for him the goal is the road."

There is a final issue, and a more sensitive one, given the singer's penchant for privacy. Beyond his relatively well-chronicled relationship with his first wife, Sara, little is known about his private life. Until very recently, biographers were unfamiliar with the basic details of his family, and many fans don't know that Mr. Dylan was married for a second time, in the '80's, to one of his gospel-era backup singers, with whom he had a child.

The question, bluntly put, is what Mr. Dylan is running away from, or to. At the height of his fame, in the late 60's, he famously took himself off the road for almost seven years to raise a family in something approximating peace. What personal demons could compel a man to spend his late 40's, then his entire 50's and now his 60's, away from home?

"Is it running away or finding your own path?" Mr. Cott asked. "I don't know."
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